Case Study 1: Books featuring symbols
Research has shown that two to three children in every UK classroom have significant communication difficulties.
OIW was keen to ensure the RTW project identified whether any particular books are required to better support those needs and whether any such books exist around the world.
There are a number of different symbol systems, designed specifically to support communication. These systems are part of what is called Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Some systems involve the use of gestures or signs, such as sign language and Makaton. Others involve pictures or graphics.
The primary symbol systems used include:
Picture Communication Symbols (or PCS) - simple images that represent everything from single words to full messages. They were originally designed for developing communication aids.
Widgit - developed in the UK and originally known as Rebus symbols, these were developed to support literacy and to help make information accessible to those struggling with traditional language conventions.
Blissymbols – originally developed by C. K. Bliss in the 1940s for the purpose of international communication, these meaning-based symbols can be used by people with severe difficulties in speaking to communicate.
The value of symbols in books
Such symbols in a book are rare, but if included they can transform that book for many. They provide a simple, visual way of aiding communication and comprehension. Their addition can create the vital difference for some children, a connection with stories and illustrations they cannot otherwise understand.
There are many wider benefits to such symbols. In schools where there are a high proportion of EAL pupils, symbols can also provide a way to introduce students to new words. Plus in mainstream primary schools, it has been found that as many as 60% of children have chosen to use symbol-supported materials instead of unsupported text because they provide additional visual stimulation and motivation to learn.
It is important to note that different schools may use different symbol systems, or a variety, according to preference, history and the specific needs of their students.
Books identified by OIW
OIW found two examples of books including symbols, one series of board books from Italy featuring PCS symbols and one picture book from Sweden featuring Widgit symbols.
‘Pesci Parlanti’ series
Published by Uovonero Language: Italian
This is a series of classic fairy tales featuring PCS, designed for children with autism created by Enza Crivelli of Uovonero. There are seven titles in the series:
The board picture books feature classic fairy tales and are designed specifically to be more accessible to those with reduced communication skills. Clear illustrations are printed on the right-hand side, while the story is structured in simple sentences accompanied by PCS on the left-hand side. The pages are softly curved and feature a unique 'easy turn' format.
OIW first came across this series after having seen two of them in the IBBY guides Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities 2013 and 2011 respectively. OIW had the opportunity to see Goldilocks at the 2013 Bologna Children’s Book Fair and were sent the whole set by the publisher.
Information about the publisher
Enza Crivelli is a specialist in autism at the Centre for Training in Autism, in Antwerp (Belgium). She is also co-founder of Uovonero.
The series is currently sold in mainstream bookshops, mainly independent children's bookshops, and to date 15,500 copies have been sold in total. Uovonero are planning a reprint of three of the titles Riccioli d'oro e i tre orsi, Giacomino e il fagiolo magico, and Cappuccetto Rosso, which is already in its third reprint.
The aim was very much to make classic fairy tales accessible to children with autism, whilst also ensuring suitability for pre-school children or those with reading difficulties. Uovonero designed the book to be easy to use for autistic children, while at the same time ensuring these children feel they are reading a book not noticeably different to their non-autistic peers.
The PCS titles were shown to several focus groups and were also commented on by some of the VFG.
OIW found that the PCS symbol books proven very popular with all children in the focus groups – not just those with learning or communication difficulties. OIW did not even need to supply an English translation because the children could make sense of the symbols (and recognised the familiar traditional stories). These books also served as a valuable ‘dual language’ tool, helping children to learn words in Italian.
We received individual comments from the VFG on 'Goldilocks' and 'Snow White'.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
The VFG found the book attractive and accessible.
Johnan Bannier described the illustration as "clear, bold and demonstrating an interesting visual perspective". She also observed that "some humour adds interest to the story".
Joanna Sholem liked the way the illustrations helped to tell the familiar story and the ingenious use of symbols, enhancing interaction between adult and child. Joanna also commented on the good line spacing and size of the symbols. She felt it was very positive to still include text too, as it widens the audience "who might feel intimidated by symbol languages".
Patricia Billings commented on the 'dizzying' perspectives but noted that this was a common feature across the series.
Again, the book was felt to be very successful in terms of the symbols.
Johnan Bannier liked the way it was possible to 'read' the text by using the symbols, making it suitable for young children. She observed:
"It is clear and straightforward storytelling, which is not too demanding on the reader".
The presentation of the symbols in boxes was also felt to be positive.
The views were more divided about the 'unconventional' pencil illustrations in this particular title, which one of the group likened to Sendak’s work. They wondered whether the unusual style would appeal to UK publishers.
Feedback showed a difference of opinion across the two groups:
Publisher Focus Group 1
Publisher Focus Group 2
Schools and organisations feedback
Some of the titles in the series were more popular than others. For example, the students from Hollywater School felt the artwork in Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Red Riding Hood was a better match for the stories than Rapunzel in which they felt the artwork was a bit too sophisticated for the story. They thought traditional stories are especially good and that the easy-turn pages were great.
River Beach School SSC students really liked the PCS titles particularly the fact that they knew the story already so they were able to make an instant connection, and work out the story, even though they had never used such symbols before.
At Stepping Stones School, the views were more mixed, some finding the combination of an unfamiliar language (Italian) and the symbols a little confusing at first. However, others said they liked the symbols and one child commented on how he liked being able to 'read' an Italian book. The rich artwork and more 'gruesome' story in The Wolf and Seven Kids the most popular of the series in this school, although one or two or two of the girls liked the 'Goldilocks' story best.
St John’s Infant School students enjoyed guessing which fairy story each book was based on. They had never seen symbols before and were interested in their purpose.
Delegates at the YLG Conference in Durham commented on the different styles of artwork and how interesting this was to see, within the same series. They observed that fairy tales are always popular, but especially new takes on traditional tales and these books would ‘really add something’ to a library. They would like to see more books with symbols.
OIW believe the inclusion of symbols in a book is to be applauded and that this should be the case somewhere within the vast mainstream children’s book landscape too. This series is particularly exciting, with its range of different stories, diverse types of illustration and its easy-to-use board book format.
It was clear that several of the books were more popular than others, due to good choice of both illustrator and fairy story.
Pelle in Space (Pelle på planetfärd)
Jan Lööf, Specialpedagogiska Skolmyndigheten, (SPSM), Umeå, Sweden (The National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools), 2010 Originally published by Bonnier Carlson, Sweden, 2010 Language: Swedish
Pelle embarks on a space adventure to find his friend the professor’s dog Lajka, who has been taken hostage in order to force the professor to hand over his book of inventions.
'Pelle' has been adapted using Widgit symbols. All of the original illustrations remain, but the Swedish language version is simplified for children with reading disabilities and the story is told in easy text printed beneath the Widgit symbols.
Pelle in Space was written by Swedish author, illustrator, comic creator and jazz musician, Jan Lööf. The original title was adapted with Widgit (and another edition with Bliss) symbols by the National Agency for Special Education and Schools in Sweden.
OIW discovered Pelle in Space at the Bologna Book Fair in 2013 where it was featured in an exhibition of the IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities, catalogue 2013 (no. 5).
We contacted both publishers to obtain copies of the mainstream and Widigit versions of the book.
In order to produce a Widgit English version we asked translator and publisher, Julia Marshall to produce two translations: one for the mainstream book and another for the Widigit version. We then bought Widgit software and created a PDF version we could use with focus groups.
Pelle in Space received positive feedback from both the VFG and the schools and organisations.
Joanna Sholem loved this book "from the very first page" and Dr. Lathey described it as an "enjoyable space adventure with good, clear graphics".
Johnan Bannier at River Beach School was a particular fan of the book. She thought the illustrations were detailed and interesting with lots to look at and talk about. She described them as "imaginative, whilst not being without being too 'fairy tale' for boys". She liked everything about the book, noting:
"It is unusual in presentation and storyline, but not too complicated for children to follow. Boys could identify with the main character. I'd like a whole series of 'Pelle' adventures".
She also felt that the symbol system helped to support less confident readers because it was accessible immediately, observing that her (BSL) signing pupil picked up symbols straight away, even though symbols are of course different from signs.
Patricia Billings was a fan of the book, commending it for its creativity:
"The story and settings are wacky in a great way, weaving real life with fantastical. The book cleverly encompasses symbols for words that are practical as well as astronomical. I really like the illustrations, and I think they will easily appeal to boys as well as girls".
The publishers in our focus groups shared the concerns about whether the shorter text was satisfying enough for mainstream audiences. Their specific observations included:
To summarise, the publishers didn't feel it would work in the market unless it had the full text and a Widgit version would be for a specialised market probably not taken on by a mainstream publisher.
Schools and organisations
The focus groups with schools enjoyed reading Pelle in Space and looking at the original Swedish version.
Their views were different from those of the publishers, there was a general feeling that the book had a huge amount to offer children and plenty of scope for discussion and was particularly relevant to those in special schools but also relevant to mainstream settings.
Staff at Hollywater School described 'Pelle' as 'gorgeous' in terms of illustration but they felt the text (and symbols) should be as short and snappy as possible and that it was important to keep language simple.
They felt that some of the illustrations were a bit obscure and not clear enough for children with learning difficulty, but generally the artwork was superb. Pronunciation of some Swedish names could be tricky. It was felt that 'Pelle' could be very useful to support Phonics work.
River Beach School children seemed to enjoy ‘Pelle’, as the teacher encouraged them to look at the symbols to help work out what was going on in the story.
At Stepping Stones, feedback was generally good, with one student describing it as a 'brilliant adventure' which he would really like to see translated and available in the UK – "it should be in English for all children to enjoy" he told us. The teacher noted that there was a great opportunity to discuss pictures and spot details (children particularly enjoyed spotting the dog being tempted by the sausages!)
Delegates at the YLG Durham Conference commented positively on the artwork and felt that the symbols were likely to be of interest to all children. Comments included "It’s a shame mainstream books never include things like this" and "Special schools would love this".
OIW were very pleased to find this book in Bologna, with its distinctive artwork, unusual story and Widgit symbols.
'Pelle' had much to offer special school settings. The abridged text and Widgit symbols made the book accessible to many audiences who would otherwise struggle with the language and length of the original version. For some children with severe learning difficulties and/or communication difficulties, the text could even benefit from being simpler still. However, for the mass market, the abridged text appeared to have lost something compared with the original full-length story.
It became clear that in an ideal world, this book (like many) would benefit from being made available in several different formats, including an abridged, sign-supported version for children with communication difficulties.